14 Jun 2013
Climate change is causing unique challenges for countries such as Bangladesh, pictured above. The environment must be considered "if we are to sustain progress in tackling poverty," Green writes. (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman/FAO)
Reading the report of the High Level Panel induces a sense of giddy optimism. It is a manifesto for a (much) better world, taking the best of the Millennium Development Goals, and adding what we have learned in the intervening years – the importance of social protection, sustainability, ending conflict, tackling the deepest pockets of poverty, even obesity (rapidly rising in many poor countries).
The ambition and optimism is all the more welcome for its contrast with the daily grind of austerity, recession and international paralysis (Syria, climate change, the torments of the European Union).
But then the doubts start to creep in. What’s missing is always harder to spot than what is in the text, but three gaps are already clear: The emerging global concern over inequality is relegated to national politics. The concept of poverty is pretty old school – income, health, education, and fails to recognize the considerable progress made in measuring "well-being" – the level of life satisfaction people feel. Finally there is too little recognition that the earth is a finite ecosystem, and that we need to make a reality of the concept of planetary boundaries if we are to sustain progress in tackling poverty.
But the elephant in the room is not the text, but how this text will or will not connect to the struggles to achieve the many very laudable aims set out in the report.
Five or 10 years down the line, will the High Level Panel report be food for termites, or a watershed in human development?
The post-2015 process could have lasting influence in four main ways: Firstly, making the case for improving the quality or quantity of aid (the major achievement of the MDGs). The report does pretty well on that, as you would expect.
Second, international agreements can be effective in triggering long-term, under-the-radar changes in public norms and values. It is very unlikely that this report will have that effect, but it’s still possible if there is sufficient pressure.
That brings us to a third pathway to impact: directly exerting traction on national governments. Will the post-2015 process persuade national governments to do things differently, for example by creating a "race to the top" between governments, highlighting the heroes and zeroes (like the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings)?
Finally, the post-2015 process could create stronger and broader alliances of civil society organizations, trade unions, faith institutions and others who take whatever comes out of the process and use it to put pressure on their governments.
With two and a half years before the MDGs deadline, the task of those concerned with development should now be to defend the good stuff in the report from dilution, while focusing far more strongly on how a new set of global goals can lead to lasting change at the national level.
Duncan Green is a strategic adviser for Oxfam GB. A full version of this post can be found on From Poverty to Power, a conversational blog intended to provoke debate and conversations about development. It is a personal reflection by the author.